While I haven’t played enough of the world top 100 to comment on the Old Course’s placement, I’d agree with the consensus that this is the best of at least the London area heathland courses. Why? Variety. I don’t believe that I’ve ever played a course with such a delightful mix of holes. There are really short holes, there are really long holes. There are long vistas, there are funky uphill blind shots. There are big undulating greens and there are small flat ones.
And for the golf course architecture buffs, there are the older Willie Park Jr. holes and the newer Harry Colt ones. The major difference between these is in the green sites and the shaping around them. Park Jr.’s green tend to be on flat or gently sloping land with open approaches while Colt built several of his greens into hillsides with diagonal bunkers on the approach. I usually like consistency in shaping style across the course but the blend of these two style just works on the Old Course. Maybe it’s because Colt’s style works better on hillsides and Park Jr.’s works better on flat land and were always going to have to be a few of each type of hole on this sprawling piece of forested heathland.
But I don’t want to spend too much time getting into who did what on the Old Course because I’d rather talk about the individual holes. This course has more good holes than almost any course that I can think of. Several are quite quirky. It may not be much of a test of golf for the best players in the world anymore but for the rest of us, I can hardly imagine a more enjoyable one on which to play golf.
The drizzle stopped after my morning round on the New but it kept everyone off the course, which I had pretty much all to myself. One of the quaint (but expensive) homes to the right of the fairway was burning wood and the set the tone perfectly for this course on this cold, grey day. The first hole is a short and wide-open par 5. It introduces us to some of the English quirk that we’ll find throughout this course in this case, a series of diagonal, heather-covered ridges running into the edges of the fairway starting about 150 yards short of the green. On Google Earth, it looks like these formed a hedge line along the edge of an old property but apparently there’s some archaeological significance here—they dug up some ancient pottery which is in a museum in nearby Reading.
But it is a very good and tough hole. The bunkers on the right start at about 235 yards and narrow the fairway considerably if you go past 250. The approach to the green has two quirks: (1) a pond 40 yards short of the green with a bizarre wood plank running down its length and (2) a random heather-covered mound about 20 yards short and left of the green. Neither of these should be a factor for good players who hit good drives but they would cause all kinds of problems for higher handicap golfers.
If you lay up, it’s important to keep your ball in the right center of the fairway because the green is very small. Especially if the flag were on the left side of the green, it’d be very difficult to play to it from the left side of the fairway.
I don’t think that the Old Course would pose much of a challenge to the top players today. While it’s only par 70, it’s also only about 6,650 yards from the tips. But who cares? At least 80% of the golfers who play almost any course won’t be single digit handicaps. And with a few very hard holes like 2, 10, and 15, the Old can stand up just fine to most of them too. It’s actually a perfect mix of holes to test the game of a shorter-hitting single digit handicap…like me (I wasn't up to the challenge on this day).
But regardless of your skill level, every golfer who is going to be in London should drop a few hundred pounds and play this course. Actually they should drop a few hundred more and play both the Old and the New on the same day. I can hardly imagine a better 36 hole day of golf.